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With a selection of bottles chosen as much for their beautiful design as their contents, guests don’t help themselves to the cocktail trolley at Mark Palmer’s house

By Mark Palmer

February 15 2023

We’ve come full circle, as we so often do. A decade ago, creative boffins who had secured lucrative contracts with wine companies and distilleries were raising their glasses (and filling their pockets) as they came up with arty labels that said little but spoke volumes about their trendy credentials.

Some have survived. Australia’s Inkwell wines has what looks like a butterfly as its label – and that’s about it. Sledgehammer, a Californian winery, simply has its name on the bottle, and if you want further explanation then its website won’t help much, except for saying the pinot noir is “like a lakeside hike in the woods, or an elegant engineering solution”.

Heaven knows what the great illustrators of the past, such as Toulouse Lautrec or Alphonse Mucha, would make of such gimmicks, but they would be heartened by the new move for label and bottle design that seeks to convey provenance, while at the same time offering a refined visual experience.

No doubt one of the main objectives for this development is to make sure a bottle stands out on a shop shelf, but it also matters what that same bottle brings to the party when set on a cocktail trolley or loitering on a dining-room table.

And it’s not just a question of labelling. Bespoke bottle production has also changed dramatically – and for the better.

“It used to be that you had to pay for a new mould and commit to hundreds of thousands of bottles to get exactly what you wanted,” says Nick Radclyffe, Managing Director of Foxdenton Estate, which produces an award-winning London dry gin and a selection of gin-based liqueurs.

HM the Queen’s Royal Collection
HM the Queen’s Royal Collection

“Recently, new factories have opened, aimed at the bespoke bottle, and sometimes this means you only need to have one half of a mould designed as you can use a standard bottle with the design on one side only,” Nick explains. “Bottles are even being engraved, and when it comes to stoppers the variations seem endless.”

I like the way Foxdenton’s gin (right) gives some history of the company on the bottle (founded in 1935 by Nick’s grandfather, Major Charles Radclyffe, “a man of unusual passions who was tattooed with the entire family coat of arms on his chest”) – along with government-required information about recommended daily alcohol units for men and women, ingredients and nutritional data.

It’s all getting a little crowded on a 70cl bottle. Hence the need for succinct messaging. A good case in point is a new, aged rum product called John Paul Jones (far right), in tribute to the distinguished naval commander who emigrated to the United States in 1775 and became the scourge of the British Navy.

“The jacket on the front of the bottle is a mock-up of the tunic worn by the American Navy, which John Paul Jones founded,” says Finnian Gill, one of the directors of the company. Finnian says the jacket seeks to “evoke the feeling in consumers that they themselves can harness some of his adventurous spirit and courage”.

Bespoke bottle production for Foxdenton gin.
Bespoke bottle production for Foxdenton gin.

With this in mind, the back label includes a quote from the great man (JPJ, not Finnian, although this young man’s time may come): “It seems to be a law of nature, inflexible and inexorable, that those who will not risk cannot win.”

My favourite bottle – possibly of all time – is Del Professore’s vermouth from Piemonte in northern Italy. Engraved at the bottom and with a tall neck, this 75cl creation is outrageously over the top, with its main label dotted with old coins, coat of arms and various aristocratic trappings. It’s a masterpiece.

If I leave it out on view, anyone visiting the house always picks it up and makes suitably admiring noises as they are transported back to 17th-century Milan, when vermouth was the most popular of wine-based aperitifs.

Del Professore’s vermouth from Piemonte in northern Italy
Del Professore’s vermouth from Piemonte in northern Italy

But with such a tipple – as with any of the ambitiously-designed bottles that are increasingly elbowing their way into people’s homes and demanding to be seen rather than hidden in a cupboard – the taste has to be on a par with the creativity. And Foxdenton, John Paul Jones and Del Professore do just that.

Use the latter to make a classic Negroni and I promise you will never drink a Martini Rosso ever again. And never wish to look at its pedestrian bottle either.